Episode 6: Investigating Inhibitory Control - The Personal Brain Trainer Podcast

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Investigating Inhibitory Control 


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Full Transcript for Episode 6

Welcome to the Personal Brain Trainer Podcast.

I'm Dr. Erica Warren and I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts.  Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and stories for everyday life.  We explore executive functions and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind. Come learn how to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals.  This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.

This podcast is brought to you by Bullet Map Academy. We have free dyslexia screener app called dyslexia quiz.  It's a fun, engaging and interactive app.  Try it now.  Just search for dyslexia quiz on the app store and see how your score differs from your friends and family.

This podcast is brought to you by www.goodsensorylearning.com where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning.

Finally, you can find Dr Warren's many courses at www.learningspecialistcourses.com .  Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.


So, what's the topic for this week?

Erica I'm really excited about this episode.

We're going to be investigating inhibitory control but just to give you a little bit of back story of what we were talking about last week we were talking about executive functioning, and we were talking about how executive functioning is made up of three core issues or issues or components is a better word, inhibitory control.

Working memory and cognitive flexibility.

We have talked about working memory in a prior episode but this episode we're going to go deeper into inhibitory control.

Hopefully next week we're going to move on to cognitive flexibility so that we can really zoom in on the three areas of executive functioning.

One of the things that we are endeavoring to do here in this podcast is to not just teach you information but through our conversation between Erika and I is to come up with visual imaginative frameworks, analogies, metaphors, things that kind of help you on a meta level, not just intellectually understand this but to sort of emotionally imaginatively connect with this information.

So, you can make it part of your everyday life because if you can visualize it, you can make it happen.

If you can picture it, you can make it come into reality.

So that's what we're going to endeavor to do in this podcast is Erica and I were on a mission to clarify these different areas of brain training and to make it real to ourselves in metaphor absolutely.

And just to jump into inhibitory control.

As I said before, it is one of the three core executive functioning skills and what it does is it helps us do several things, it helps us maintain attention, it helps us self-monitor, it helps us with task initiation.

It even helps us control impulses and manage or regulate our emotions.

So, it's a lot it's funny that I think that there's a consensus in the research that executive functioning to some extent there's a consensus is really made up of those three pieces.

But when I think of it - inhibitory control, I like to place that under the umbrella of focus.

It's just an easier word to hold.

It's much more relatable human.

We don't often think about inhibitory control ourselves.

You know inhibitions.

Is it to do with inhibitions?

Yeah, it's controlling your inhibitions.

It's your ability to block distractions but just to step back for a second.

So, under the umbrella of focus we're going to talk about three things inhibitory control, attention control and self-monitoring.

Okay, so we've got focuses the umbrella and part of that inhibitory control my dyslexia getting in the way.

They're a bit attention control and self-monitoring, right?

So, they're all issues of controlling.

Isn't that interesting that we must be consciously controlling?

Let's drop into it.

So inhibitory control, also known as response inhibition, again is one of those executive functions and it permits anybody to inhibit an impulse or habitual behavioral response.

So, something that you're oh you always seem to respond a certain way and that becomes a habit, we have a habit of doing things a certain way.

So, it's like respond rather than react so often we can react automatically in a certain way but the ability to respond to something with more control is inhibitory control or response inhibition.

Well like we might want to select a more appropriate behavior that is consistent with us being able to complete a task.

Okay, so a perfect example is doing your homework.

Are you going to keep your phone on and be distracted by all the different apps and such?

Or are you going to block those distractions inhibit them?

And I love to go back.

Oh, please share, I love your mutant zoom.

Tell us a little bit about, you know, basically you're muting your phone for a bit, aren't you while you focus.

Um and so the way to focus is to mute something and zoom in on the thing you really want to concentrate on.

So, it's mute and zoom.

We talked about that in the last episode.

Another aspect of this is that analogy of the horse that we talked about started in the last episode where it's kind of like your emotions or your reactions are like a wild animal sometimes, or a little puppy or a dog, or I remember thinking when I was learning about this was my dog was a puppy.

It's got its own responses reactions, but I had to train it to respond in certain ways to the doorbell ringing or going out the door or walking out the door and it had to learn that I was actually the pack leader and it's like this if your brain is like a dog is like this puppy going all over the place and wanting to do all this and pulling in the wrong places and creating a mess and it's absolutely adorable, but there's a certain point that it actually has to respond appropriately, not just react to everything, otherwise it becomes antisocial and it's similar to what we're talking about here, isn't it?


In fact, just this week I was using both of those metaphors with one of my students that learning to manage your mind, which is basically what we're talking about here, inhibitory control is learning to manage your mind.

And I was using the metaphor of a wild horse, but I moved over to puppy, and I said imagine that your mind is a puppy, you just have to train your puppy and that always makes kids smile to think of your mind like a puppy.

It says so much in such a simple metaphor, so I think inhibitory control is that muting, and you we haven't talked about on the podcast, but I love your way of describing the inhibitory control or muting with a horse.

Tell us about that.

Well, okay, another way of thinking about your mind is your subconscious mind is like a wild horse and your conscious mind is like the rider sitting on the horse and at some point you need to exercise your will to direct that horse, okay, and you can use your reins to direct it, but you can also put some blinkers on the horse and you know in the old days when and even nowadays, if you're riding a horse on a road, sometimes it's helpful for the horse to have what we call blinkers in the UK and blinkers are these little things that you put down the side of the horse's eyes, so they don't see in the corner of their eye, they don't see cars going by them all of a sudden, they don't see other horses or creatures or whatever, they're just looking forwards and so you physically block out, you know, you're blocking out the peripheral vision that you are, the distractions.

Right, right, right, right.

That can cause anxiety or distractions etcetera.

So that's a way of muting or inhibiting what you're seeing or experiencing so that you physically stay focused.

And I've even read about situations where when kids have really difficult problems focusing, where they can actually create almost like that very thing for the kid on their desk, where they put a big cardboard area around them to use a screen around them to block the destroy actions in front and on the side so that they can just get into their homework.

So yeah, I guess that would be almost like a student blinker.

That's right.

And you can also take another adult analogy of that is for example, I was doing a workplace needs assessment training for dyslexia at work.

And often one way to deal with distractions is to change the orientation of your desk.

So, you're actually looking into the corner of the room, and you've got like two walls who are blink a ring you and sort of physically focusing you into that corner which is your monitor or white board or desk.

And you have to consciously turn around and look at someone and say hello rather than catching people's eyes as they're going by and say oh hi, oh hi or whatever.

So, you're physically doing this as well so you can control and inhibit information coming in physically and also mentally.

Well, you know, the interesting thing about that is that you have to be a little bit careful about blocking yourself in a dark corner because that's not great for cognition.

One thing that I have which is absolutely perfect where I'm sitting right now is I have a big half-moon window right above my desk, but I can't see what's going on below.

I can only look up into the tree.

I'm the same.

I'm the same.

I have a deluxe window directly above my desk in front of me and all I can see is the sky, I don't see people walking by or anything like that.

Oh of course we both have that.

I guess I guess that was subconscious but having that light that natural light keeps you activated, keeps you awake.

And then also the other thing that I love to point out is keeping your whatever technology are you using either at or slightly above eye level so that you're keeping your eyes open.

If you're looking down at your technology is telling your brain to shut down and then it's time to go to sleep.

Did you pick that up on that guy's podcast where Huberman lab podcast awesome big fan of his, check that out.

I mean in many ways what we're doing is taking a lot of those kind of concepts that are very intellectual and so on and creating metaphors and examples and making it very practical.


So, you know what let's zoom in, let's focus on attention control which was the next piece.

So, we're done with inhibitory control in a sense but they're all really part of the big picture.

So, attention control is really the ability to choose what to focus your attention on and then tune out distractions.

This is where the zoom comes in and attention control has four components goal directed persistence, sustaining attention, shifting attention and task initiation.

So, let's look at each one of those, Oh my goodness!

Hold on, slow down again.

Goal directed persistence, sustaining attention shifting attention, task initiation.

Can I just suggest another metaphor for this which is zooming in with an actual camera.

If we had a camera with one of these telephoto zooms, how much of this could be related to that thing that we understand which is zooming in with a camera, let's look at each one of these individually and see if we can apply it to that metaphor.

So, with goal directed persistence, it has to do with the capacity to have a goal follow through to the completion of that goal and not to be put off by distractions or other competing interests.

Okay, so that would be kind of like if we were zooming in, we would have a landscape in front of us and we would say there's this incredible bird flying over the water diving over there.

Right now, there's this gannet and you zoom straight into the gannet and you're saying I want to get a great photo of that gannet splashing into the water.


Now let's look at sustaining attention which has to do with the ability to focus on an activity or stimulus over a long period of time.

So, it's about time, it's about keeping the camera on the gannet and not letting everything else get in the way, staying focused on that.

So, it's more than just a picture.

It's really a video of the gannet sometimes with photographers, what they're doing is they zoom in.

So, you could zoom in on a gannet flying up, but it takes time for them to fly round and round and round, decide when they're going to dive and then dive.

So, you've got to kind of zoom out a little bit just so you can see all of that and then you start seeing the bird diving and then you're like right I'm going to get the shot now, so you have to wait.

It's like a natural wildlife photographer.

It's not always there.

There's that patient waiting to sustain their attention for the shot so that you can sustain attention so that you can complete the shot.




And we've got shifting attention which is task switching or set shifting and it involves the ability to unconsciously shift attention between one task and another.

Isn't that interesting?

Okay so in part of being able to get this whole video or picture of this gannet that were used as a metaphor, there are a lot of controls that you have to use on the camera to do that.

You have to turn the telephoto lens to zoom in.

You have to hit the shutter.

So, it's all that unconscious stuff that we do to take that picture or take that video.


So, attention control, what I'm hearing here is attention control.

Part of maintaining attention control is to have a goal is to sustain your attention but also to shift your attention.

So you're still got the scene of the cloud of birds swirling and then the water underneath it and you might still maintain your attention on it but shift to the top a little bit, shift to the water a little bit, adjust the camera a little bit so you're still paying attention but you're using shifts of attention to maintain your attention well but they're unconscious, Oh they're unconscious unconsciously shifting to maintain your focus.

Oh, I see.

So, it's kind of like when you're looking at something, you're not always looking at one particular thing all the time, your kind of moving around a little bit and if you watch your eyes, it's sort of following a pattern, but it's still within the frame as it were, right?

And we're not conscious about our eyes shifting, it's kind of an unconscious pattern fast, isn't it?

Last one is task initiation, which is the ability to begin working on a task without external prompts.

And it actually takes place in a slightly different part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, but it's all about being able to get started, how would we bring that into our metaphor of taking the photograph?

So if we take these elements, So the task initiation is really one of the first things, it's like you're walking along and you say I want to take a photo and you go, right, let's take a photo, I'm going to lift up the camera, I'm going to choose a scene, I'm going to have a goal of capturing it and then I'm going to wait and my brain is going to help me by shifting my attention around within that frame until I find a shot and then I click and I take the shot and I've got it, so that's how I maybe put it into the analogy with that.

Yeah, I think that works perfectly and if I were to present this again, I'd probably put that first that would make the most sense.

Okay, what else we got then?

We've talked about attention control.

Well, are you going to keep going on to self-monitoring or are we going to talk about what we can do to help with our attention control?

Well let's go ahead and finish the big picture of what we're doing monitoring and then we'll go back and talk about attention at large.

So, I think the last piece is self-monitoring.

And again, to just to go back to zoom out to the big picture again we had inhibitory control, attention control and the third piece is self-monitoring.

That's your ability to understand your actions or behaviors and adjust them to make changes for the future.

So, it's your ability to yeah to monitor your own actions and behaviors.

So, under that idea we have emotional control or regulation and that's the ability to manage or direct one's emotions.

Pretty interesting.


And if we think about emotional control, I like to break that into two pieces.

There is self-awareness and meta cognition maybe I shouldn't say two pieces because under self-awareness and meta cognition which why don't I just go a little deeper into what that is.

Self-awareness and meta cognition are really the same thing.

It's the awareness of your own cognition, the awareness of your own thought processes and understanding the patterns behind them.

So, the ability to think about your thinking.

The ability to think about your thinking and I had next to this, but maybe it's part of this Jill Bolte Taylor who's a neuroscientist and you may have seen her on one of the ted talks, she's got one of the most popular teds talks and she talks about the 92nd rule and the 92nd rule.

I'm going to quote her here When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there's a 92nd chemical process that happens in the body.

After that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in an emotional loop.

So, this is really interesting.

So basically, what she's saying is that when it comes to emotions, they really only last 90 seconds.

So, if you're feeling angry, you’re feeling dis regulated, you're feeling happy.

Any kind of emotion is a chemical reaction in your body and it only lasts 90 seconds unless you choose to create a story or to keep it alive.

So now we probably want to keep alive our positive emotions, but we don't want to keep alive our negative emotions.

So, if you're angry about something, you don't have to be angry more than 90 seconds.

Unfortunately, many of us choose to stay in those negative emotions because we tell a story, and we keep it alive.

So does it work like this.

So, let's say something happens to me.

I get angry, and for 90 seconds I have the angry chemicals going through my body giving me those physical neurological angry emotions.

And then I choose to maintain that by focusing in on it or something.

Or thinking about that thought again.

Does it trigger another 90 seconds of those chemical reactions?

Yeah, I mean you can keep it alive if you want to but That's plate spinning.

So, another 90 seconds, another 90 seconds.

So same chemicals being released all the time.

Yeah, I believe so.

The idea is that if you want to have more emotional control and regulate your emotions every time something happens you got to wait about 90 seconds.

And if you really don't want to stay in that emotion then you can let it go.

Unfortunately, people if they're angry they're holding onto their anger because they might want to be punishing someone around them or they don't want to forget or they don't want to repeat something negative that happened.

But however, when we're in the emotion, we're not able to really regulate it.

Okay, so we give ourselves 90 seconds grace as it were to say, look I'm going to be experienced this experiencing this for 90 seconds, let's just let this wave pass and then we'll step off right, right?

But if you continue to think about it, you're staying right in the emotion.

And the thing is that you can't really regulate or even work through emotional reactions until you step out of it.

And anyway we kind of become dis not just dis regulated, but we get stuck in our amygdala, that reptilian part of the brain where we're in a state of fight flight or freeze were in reaction, we're not able to be consciously analytical about a situation to be able to move through it with any grace, as long as we stay in that emotion and that particularly negative emotion, then we're more likely to kind of have a reptilian response.


Yes, so basically what you're saying is without executive function, we end up having this reptilian response or reaction to be precise.

You know, we're just reacting all the time and you can focus it into inhibitory control because we're really under that umbrella now.

So yes, self-monitoring or emotional control or regulation is all under executive functioning.

But you really want to zoom in, it's under inhibitory control and if you want to zoom in even more, it's under self-monitoring.

Okay, so self-monitoring.

What I've got as a takeaway here, correct me if I'm wrong is I'm monitoring my emotions, I'm aware of them or trying to be aware of them.

This 90 second rule gives me an extra nugget which is oh my goodness, I'm feeling angry right now.

And so, I say to myself, I know this is going to take 90 seconds to fade away.

I'm going to give myself those 90 seconds, start counting sort of thing that's like counting to 10 as it were and then once it's passed it's like right what I'm going to choose now.

So, it's like you don't have complete control immediately all the time.

But you do know when you have the awareness that you experience something and then you know when it's time to intervene, it's like the puppy because when I was training my dog, when the puppy is sniffing something outside, it's hard to get it to come and recall.

And so sometimes you must wait until a certain loop is over.

And so the puppy does a sniff and they maybe sniff for about 15 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds and they've done their sniff and then they have another, we look around and then you as an owner see that moment of disconnection from that obsession with the smell and you say Sam and you get their attention but if it's in the mid of the sniff as it were, you don't get their attention and you just end up going Sam Sam Sam Sam and getting you wondering what's going on.

So, in a way, this 90 second rule is also applicable to us. And you can get our attention to say, hey Darius remember time to break out of this. You've had your sniff, you know another, there are a couple other nice metaphors for this is and I'm sure this will trigger something in you too.

You can think of it as clouds.

It's a cloud that's passing now the clouds are always passing and we can just observe it so we can observe our emotions.

We don't have to be our emotions and just let them pass.

The other analogy that I've observed before.

Also, by other people is thinking of it as traffic and you're sitting on the side of the road and you're observing think of the traffic as your emotions, and you can observe the emotions passing by.

You don't have to run out into the traffic.

You can just sit and observe them.

If you run out into the traffic, then that's going to take a lot of time.

And you could get injured and other people could get injured too.

But if you stay on the side of the road and you just observe or lay on your back and observe the clouds.

Just like let them pass by.

Let those emotions pass by observe them for what they are.

But you don't necessarily have to react because usually the wrong time to react is when you're deeply in a negative emotion anyway.

Because you could be triggered in a way where you're going to react in a kind of a non-rational way you want to be able to rationalize before you react.


Thank you for giving us the overview.

Can you sum all of this up very quickly for us? Just wrap it into one and then move on to talking about ADHD and how it relates to the ADD?

Yeah, I thought we'd go a little bit into that because whenever you think about that umbrella of focus and we're thinking about inhibitory control, attention self-monitoring, how could we not mention ADHD or attention deficit or attention issues?

And I saw I can't even remember who I saw it with such a long time ago.

But when I first got in the field probably around 2000, I went to a talk on ADHD.  And the person that was speaking talked about how it's not really attention deficit.

That's a misnomer.

It should be called attention surplus disorder.

Because it's not that they have too little attention.

It's that they have too much attention.

And I thought that that was such an amazing realization and that really stuck with me, and it really gave me a much better understanding of what ADHD Is.

And of course, you know you could go I could go into the whole thing about it used to be ADD.  Now it's ADHD. And ultimately what the H. represents his hyperactivity.

So, it means someone that has a hard time paying attention to things that they don't want to pay attention to.

Um Or that they're not interested in.

But they also have hyperactivity - and of course, they have ADHD Without the hyperactivity.

So, there are those people that have the inattention, but you can't see it.

They might be giving you every indication that they're paying attention.

They're nodding their head, so you've got all the nonverbal, so you think they're focusing but their mind is elsewhere.

But as you can see obviously this whole umbrella of focus is a big issue for those that have attention deficit disorder.

But it's also important to note that they also tend not all but most of them also have issues with working memory which makes sense if we think about it.

Working memory is your ability to hold on to information and mentally manipulate it.

Well, if you can't focus it's going to be hard for you to hold on to that information let alone mentally manipulate it.

So many of them do struggle with memory largely because they're unable to maintain their focus.

But the interesting thing that is also worth mentioning is that a lot of parents will say well why is it that my son who or daughter that has ADHD can hyper focus?

That is true.

And many individuals with attention deficit disorder also have the incredible ability to hyper focus on what they love.

And let me tell you why the reason why they can is whenever they're doing something they love.

They get a dopamine burst and dopamine is what gives us a heightened sense of focus.

So, the way that kids with attention deficit disorder can focus is when they're doing the stuff that they love that's when they get a dopamine burst.

So, dopamine kind of becomes that conductor and allows them to focus and it really changes how they perceive the world, and it turns on parts of the brain that creates a funneled or allows a funnel sensation or allows them to direct their attention.

It's really fascinating.

So many of these drugs that the kids are taking, they are stimulants, but they're also known to trigger dopamine bursts and that's why it helps the kids so much with focusing is because it helps with the dopamine levels as well as it helps the brain to by exciting the brain.

It allows it to create the inhibitors that were inhibited and now they're able to focus.

But it's interesting, isn't it?

It is.

And you know what it makes me think of is a little technique that I use when I take notes and I teach kids to take notes with mind mapping, I get them to doodle quite a lot and sometimes when you're doing a subject that's really boring like biology or something like that.

I say to them okay so we're talking about, let's take photosynthesis for example and they're not really that interested in in it, they're interested in cars and something else trains or whatever, then I would say to them, what picture could we use out of something that you're really interested in as a little kind of reminder of what this is like.

And they go, oh right well photosynthesis is kind of like little cars going up the stem that could be the sap and you know, they're picking up this and they're doing that, and the sun is like petrol or diesel or electric or this is a Tesla car or whatever.

And, and so there would this be correct every time they're seeing something that they're really interested in like the car, which has got nothing to do with the biology, but it, it's stimulating this dopamine that is associating it with the subject the next time the teacher, the parent says, well what were you learning about today?

They're seeing cars and they go, well, yeah, I’m talking, we were learning about biology, mom, and photosynthesis and so on and so well-done Darius, that's great.

And inside you're thinking about the cars and outside you're talking about the photosynthesis.


I think that is absolutely a beautiful way of putting it all together.

And I use that all the time.

I ask my students that have shut down whether it's handwriting or reading or math or what do you love?

And then we bring, if it's a character like Pokémon, we bring the character into all the lessons.

If it's a passion.

Yeah, like cooking then we bring that, and we use hey we're using metaphors, what are we doing in this podcast are creating metaphors.

So, people can have that little dopamine burst and they can relate to it or come up with your own metaphor using your own passions.

But letting kids come up with their own metaphor that they can tie into whatever the sequences that they're having to learn or how could we say that?

This is like something that you love that.

Yeah, that's a beautiful way of helping those kids but also just to share with you whenever I have a student that has any type of attentional problem whether they have a clinical level of ADHD.  Or maybe I can just observe that it's something that's going on and they may have never been tested.

I often will call them chief, and I'll call them chief enough that they'll look at me and say why are you calling me a chief?

And I'll say well because you would be the chief if we were in an American Indian culture, they kind of look at me and I'll say well I can see that what you're able to do is you're able to focus on a lot more things than I'm able to focus on really.

They have that attention surplus.

Like you if I were to leave you in my office and then come in and take you out of the office and ask you about my office.

You'd probably be able to tell me a lot more than a student that could focus because you were observing everything.

Well in an American Indian culture it was very important to have attention surplus because if you were too focused on grinding the corn you might not hear the buffalo right on the other side of the hill.

And so, I tell these students I'm like my gosh so if you're in an American Indian culture you would be the chief.

So, you see I'm very much of a social constructivist that I believe that things like dyslexia and ADHD

Are socially constructed disabilities were calling them disabled because they don't fit the mold of our culture whereas they would likely fit the mold of many other cultures.

It just doesn't fit ours.

And we must give them quote a disability in order for them to get services so that we can give them what they need.

It's interesting.




That's just a great place to end the podcast I'd say.

What have we got in store for the next episode?

What should we think about next?

Well, why don't we go into the third piece of executive functioning which will be going into cognitive flexibility?

Okay cognitive flexibility.


Okay there's lots of threes going on here.

So, we've got we had executive function splitting into three and then we we've got working memory inhibitory control, which then broke into three.

I know it's kind of interesting, isn't it?

Well, we'll have to we'll have to go into cognitive flexibility and see what number we break into what three things cognitive flexibility can break down into Erica.

Thank you very much.

See you next week.

Sounds good.

See you.

Thank you for joining our conversation here at the personal brain trainer podcast.

This is Dr Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran.  Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast and please leave us a review and shares on social media until next time.